For ten years now I’ve struggled to make a film about Africa—a
political film that would have as its canvas the poverty, violence and
anarchy that plagues the continent. Then I read a draft screenplay about
a Rwandan called Paul Rusesabagina and knew this was the story I had
At that time Paul owned, and worked, a two-car taxi business in Brussels,
Belgium. I flew to meet him. He’s a charming man, precisely dressed
and studied in his manner and conversation. In my hotel bar, he recommended
I order a Belgian beer, “the best in the world” he said.
He vouched for the hotel, which was well run, comfortable and had good
staff. He knew what he was talking about because for most of his life
Paul had worked in the hotel business. That night at dinner he recommended
a certain French wine and was careful to instruct the waiter
as to exactly how he wanted his beef cooked. Paul Rusesabagina
has style, and that style, along with his cunning and courage, saved
the lives of 1,268 helpless refugees, even though the entire world abandoned
him in the midst of the fastest, most vicious genocide in modern history.
In April of 1994 Paul worked for the Sabena hotel chain in Kigali,
Rwanda. Paul is Rwandan Hutu, his wife Tatiana is Tutsi, and through
his work as manager at the four-star Milles Collines Hotel he fostered
many contacts in diplomatic circles and among the Rwandan elite.
Then, on the night of April 6, Rwanda’s Hutu president was assassinated
when his jet was shot from the sky. Immediately the Hutu army and their
militia set about systematically slaughtering the minority Tutsi.
Paul and Tatiana herded their family and neighbors into their van and
car and fled to the hotel. Over the course of the next hundred days,
Paul bribed, blackmailed and bluffed several senior Hutu army officials
into protecting the hotel. Along the way he watched and listened as
the West pulled out all their troops and insisted that the UN do the
same. Paul did not loose a single refugee to the machetes of the militia
even though they howled for his blood and at one point invaded the hotel
looking for him.
After our Brussels meeting he agreed to let me try to sell his story
as a feature film. I cautioned him that it would be tough to persuade
financiers to back a film about the Rwandan genocide with a black lead.
Over the next year I made the rounds of the Hollywood studios. I got
no offers. Then Paul invited me to return with him on his first trip
back to Rwanda since he left after the genocide.
On a warm sunny day, Paul, Tatiana and some of the survivors from the
hotel took me to a place called Murambi, in Southern Rwanda, to a technical
college high on a hill overlooking the lush green countryside. In April
1994, the Hutu mayor promised the Tutsi of the region protection if
they gathered at that technical college. Forty thousand of them sought
shelter and over the course of just four days they were slaughtered.
Their bodies were thrown into pits and covered with lime. Somehow the
lime preserved the bodies. Today scores of those bodies are laid out
on tables in the rooms where they died. They are frozen in the last
desperate moments of their agony, hands pleading, heads cradled by arms,
skulls cracked open by merciless machetes. There’s a babies room
where tiny skeletons bear the same silent testimony to
A solitary tall man looks after that sacred place. He is one of only
four survivors of the massacre. He has a hole the size of a nickel in
his forehead where the execution bullet entered and failed. He led me
to the lobby where there is a guest book. I signed it and a woman asked
if I would like to make a contribution to the maintenance of the memorial
site. I guess I had some two hundred dollars in my wallet. I gave her
it all. She hugged me, almost in tears. She said it was the most money
she could remember receiving. I was dumbfounded. If we have World Heritage
Sites shouldn’t we have World Humanity Sites, sacred places such
as Tiananmen Square, Soweto, Auschwitz and Murambi?
I made a promise there to make our film no matter what. Three years
later it is done. It is called Hotel Rwanda.
It doesn’t tell the story of Murambi. I deliberately steered away
from the overwhelming horror and tried to focus on the incredible resilience
and courage of Paul Rusesabagina so that people would be moved and encouraged
by the triumph of this great good man over evil. Hotel
Rwanda is not about the ghosts of Murambi but it is for them.
Please go and see it.